Congaree Biosphere Region
|Country||United States of America|
|Distinguishing Features||Old-growth bottomland (cypress-tupelo) forest
Long leaf pine forest
|Main Industries (in terms of employment)||tourism and recreation, agriculture, forestry, paper manufacturing, energy production, military installations|
The Congaree Biosphere Region (CBR) in central South Carolina is focused around Congaree National Park while encompassing the broader area where the Congaree and Wateree rivers join to form the Santee River. This region, situated just southeast of Columbia (the state capital) is also called the Cowasee Basin (an amalgam of the river names) and “the Green Heart of South Carolina.”
Congaree National Park was set aside in 1976 as Congaree Swamp National Monument to protect and preserve the floodplain forest from logging. Re-designated as Congaree National Park in 2003, the park today encompasses nearly 27,000 acres. According to the park’s purpose statement, “Congaree National Park protects, studies, and interprets the resources, history, stories, and wilderness character of the nation’s largest remaining tract of southern old-growth bottomland forest and its associated ecosystems.” A popular hiking, camping, and paddling destination, the park is celebrated as one of the most underrated national parks.
Other CBR protected areas include federal, state, and county lands; non-profit operations; and private lands with conservation easements. Publicly accessible examples include the Harriet Barber House, the Wateree Heritage Preserve, the Congaree Bluffs Heritage Preserve, the Congaree River Blue Trail, and the Wateree Passage of the Palmetto Trail. Fort Jackson, a United States Army Installation, and other military bases also play a large role in conservation. Fort Jackson is a Globally Important Bird Area and has a healthy population of federally endangered red cockaded woodpeckers.
Two dominant ecosystems in the CBR support considerable biodiversity and ecosystem services. The densely forested floodplains (bottomlands) are found adjacent to the large rivers with combined watersheds draining >14,000 square miles. These floodplains encompasses significant tracts of old-growth and mature second growth forest of cypress, tupelo, and dozens of other tree species. The uplands, in contrast, were historically home to longleaf pine, shortleaf pine, and mixed hardwood forests. Longleaf pine ecosystems are considered one of the most globally imperiled ecosystems—but also one of the most biodiverse (especially in regard to herbaceous biodiversity). Both the uplands and the floodplains are cross-linked by tributary streams.
The CBR is the geographic center for rich and complex cultural legacies. Spiritual, aesthetic, inspirational, and educational values are embedded in the local experience of native American traditions, colonial history, African American culture (including slavery and Reconstruction), outdoor recreation heritage, agricultural heritage, transportation history, moonshining, and more. A number of artists, writers, and performers have expressed—and continue to express—these evolving legacies.
CBR partners have a strong, applied research tradition that engages academics, resource managers, and regulatory partners. The park’s old-growth forest is a reference site for understanding ecosystem structure, function, composition (biodiversity), and change—with a significant focus on forest vegetation and hydrology. One current researcher studies the park as a reference for another CBR stream restoration site. Global change research includes phenology, bird community modeling, and sedimentation. The United States Geological Survey maintains several stream gage sites. Two areas of management action and research include prescribed burns and feral swine control. Congaree National Park is monitoring prescribed burn impacts to reducing fuel loads and increasing biodiversity (especially in longleaf pine habitats). Feral swine cause severe damage to natural and agricultural systems alike, but partners including Congaree National Park, United Stated Department of Agriculture, and local farmers are working to understand and manage feral swine impacts.
CBR ecosystems provide abundant ecosystem services. Regulatory services related to water quality are a strong influence on CBR partner discussions. Primary cultural services involve recreation and tourism, which have skyrocketed with the park’s 2003 name change and population growth. The greater Columbia Metropolitan Area hosts 14.5 million visitors annually. Congaree National Park hosts >150,000 alone. Annual synchronous firefly displays at the park have—in a span of only six years—grown to be the park’s signature public event. The 2019 firefly festival, which lasted two weeks, accounted for 8-9% of annual visitation. Other local events include SwampFest and the Sweet Potato Festival. For Provisioning Services, the CBR’s nutrient-rich soils support cotton, soybeans, corn, and sustainable forestry. Fishing, hunting (outside of the park), and foraging for wild fruits and mushrooms are also popular.